British Museum blog

Back in the lab: archaeobotany from Amara West


Philippa Ryan, Scientist, British Museum

Archaeobotany is the study of ancient plant remains, and I joined the field team at Amara West in Sudan earlier this year to collect samples for archaeobotanical analysis. Charred plant materials were retrieved on-site from sediments through dry-sieving and flotation. These samples were subsequently brought back to the British Museum for further sorting and identification.

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

At the moment I am analysing the charred seeds and fruits with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. The macroscopic plant remains are analysed using both a stereo microscope and a SEM (scanning electron microscope). Charred remains found so far include cereal grains (wheat and barley) and crop-processing waste, fruits such as figs and a wide range of wild plants.

I am also processing sediment samples to extract phytoliths (microscopic plant remains), which are formed when soluble silica taken up in groundwater by plants is deposited within and between certain plant cells. These silicified cells are found within many different plant families such as grasses (which include cereals), sedges and palms.

Phytoliths are difficult to identify, but have the advantage of surviving in both charred and non-charred contexts, so we can learn about the presence and use of plants in areas where seeds and grains don’t survive.

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

At the moment, I am processing sediments to extract phytoliths, which includes the removal of carbonates, clays, organics, other remaining non-siliceous material through heavy liquid flotation, and finally mounting dried phytoliths onto slides. Phytoliths are then identified and counted using an optical (light) microscope.

Analysis of these different types of plant remains helps us learn about the past uses of plants at Amara West in day-to-day life, such as for food, fuel and animal fodder. I am also looking at the distributions of seeds and phytoliths across the site to examine locations of plant based activities such as food processing, as well as whether there are any differences in diet between poorer and richer households, or across the history of the site.

Plant remains can also help to provide information about the nearby vegetation, for instance the types of grasses, wetland plants and trees that grew near the ancient town.

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Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC. This is Room 50, Britain and Europe 800 BC–AD 43, the next gallery space in our ongoing #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The Iron Age was a time of dramatic change for the people of Britain and Europe. Iron replaced bronze as the material used to make tools and weapons, while religion, art, daily life, economics and politics changed dramatically. The story of these civilisations (known to the Greeks and Romans as Britons, Celts, Germans and Iberians) and their distinct material cultures, is told through decorated Iron Age artefacts known as 'Celtic art' and more everyday objects. In the foreground of this picture you can see a selection of torcs and to the right is the Battersea shield, found in the River Thames in the 1850s.
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